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Using a Compass without a Map: The Journey of a Mother-Educator

 Published on May 10, 2016 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Elizabeth Lenaghan and Jessica Knott /  “unbelievable” by Funkyah; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /  0

The Purpose of Education

This article is part of a series that questions and attempts to clarify the overall goal of public education. Responses to this call investigate how the nature and intentions of higher ed have changed over time. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

Orienting Inquiry and Process

We shape our lives at the intersection and interstices of choice and chance. Subject to the vicissitudes of chance, we must ask ourselves what choices we can make that purposefully reflect the values we hold and those we wish to see take root in the world. Our choices may not change the world but they can be reflections of the world we wish to inhabit, and we should seek chances to make them wisely.

One choice I am currently grappling with concerns the ever increasing institutionalization of the educational imperative. In navigating this shifting terrain, I am continually fascinated by the ceaseless and dynamic interplay between my children’s growth and learning. They are both parallel and intersecting processes. As a mother, I am witness to their intertwinement and evolution without external intervention, or even guidance at times — how these conjoined processes happen in tandem, how they are linked, inextricably to the unfolding and revelation of a human life.

I wonder about the implications of this natural unfolding when framed within the context of institutionalized schooling, which takes place for many beginning at the age of two or three in the United States. How will the regimes and parameters of this physical and ideological space influence the convergence and generative tension between being and becoming that marks children’s amazing journey? To explore these questions, I have come up with the analogy of a compass and a map. In this schematic, the map functions as an external diagram with clearly delineated boundaries and a legend which renders its representational language transparent, or legible. The map’s situation within the “Age of Exploration” is instructive here: as an instrument and exertion of rationality, it is linked historically to imperialist conquest and expansion. The map can certainly be used creatively and non-exploitatively, and I acknowledge that fluidity, but I aver a distinction between its deployment and that of the compass. The map is primarily used to communicate with and to others, whereas the compass, as I position it here, emerges and is used organically as a tool for self-understanding and articulation. The compass is utilized by an individual to orient and (re)position herself. It is largely guided by intuition and attunement, with one’s self and with the world. Its employment is engaged in process rather than an external manifestation of product. It can be used to position oneself on a map, but it can also be applied at the discretion of the individual, as a tool for exploration and revelation. In other words, no map is necessary for the compass to be of value.

I have adopted the radical (and privileged) stance of homeschooling and potentially “unschooling” our children, adapted to the particular framework of our family’s values and our children’s specific inclinations, as a response to the intellectual and ethical conundrums posed by modern institutionalized educational frameworks. Orientationally, I find myself more aligned with what I have termed a “learning through living” and broader “parental choice” approach. The Call for Papers I am answering outlines an imperative for education to be on the “side of students.” I would augment and amplify that by adding that education must be about being on the side of kids, writ large. That merely using the word “students” can place us in an institutional framework that plain old does not work for a lot of children these days. I argue that “being on the side of kids” is increasingly harder to do within the systemic confines of the institutionalized and standardized school setting. Classes that begin at 7:45 AM; the elimination of recess after second grade for many (and even then only a 20 minute respite from the academic, stationary curriculum); consecutive 45-75 minute academic periods that focus rigidly on a core set of subjects and instructional methods and do so discretely without regard to other “subject” areas; increasing dependence on and interaction with technological mediums and formats; standardized testing and assessments that produce a high-stakes, high pressure environment, for parents, students, administrators and teachers alike; in independent schools, either a correlative atmosphere with AP exams, or for those schools that have opted out of the AP testing, an increasing pressure to get into the “right” college in order to chart a “successful” course in life (leaving aside a discussion about what constitutes “success” in this paradigm for the moment); a successive movement through a sequence of ideas, concepts, or, in the mathematics and sciences, experiments or proofs, according to a pre-set academic agenda or temporal schedule with little room for “dawdlers,” “slower learners,” or simply those students who become engaged with a specific increment of the above “units” of study. In other words, many students lack volition in the parameters, course, and unfolding of their academic (and in turn social and holistic) development. They cannot use their compass to chart their path of self-discovery. And this, to me, is a great loss.

Civic and Systemic Implications

Education should be anchored in personal transformation, but oriented towards social transformation. Meaningful and self-directed personal development is the foundation for an engaged stance towards others and towards the environment, a stance that is sorely needed in our contemporary frame. Critical reflection, of both self and of world, enables enlightened social activism, and a distanced perspective and detachment is often the necessary precursor for a potential reconfiguration of the “system”, or its radical deconstruction. When the civic obligations of our society (compulsory education being the illustration employed here) conflict with the actual exercise of those civic responsibilities in the public sphere, it is our responsibility to call attention to and disrupt that contradiction. Holistic and authentic social bonds arise spontaneously outside of the constraints — physical, ethical, philosophical, and social — of institutionalized spaces. In allowing my children to develop their own compasses to navigate the world, I am also encouraging them to understand, appreciate, and make room for those of others. I am acknowledging the reality of our interdependence, as humans who all, irreducibly, dwell on the same map (our shared planet). This notion of interdependency is quite distinct from the tenets of American individualism and self-reliance that inform so much of the Anglo-American philosophical, political, and economic tradition. It means that as the individual teeters on the precipice of her/his own map, s/he may in fact be looking directly into the interstitial pathway towards that of another person’s. Surely, I possess chances that others do not, which means that I can make choices that others cannot. But I am trying to do this with eyes and heart wide open, to my own truths, to those of my children, and to a broader vision of social justice.

My position begs the question: Is it a “cop out” of sorts? One could argue that it is, but as my children’s primary advocate (prior to their assumption of this role), it is my duty to provide them with the context that I believe will nurture the revelation of their evolving selves in as free and non-judgmental an environment as possible.

Herein lies an encapsulation of the longstanding argument about working within or without the “system.” I will confront this question on two fronts. First, I believe that the in/out opposition is itself misguided and even illusory. In other words, I do not believe that working outside of the system means that you are not also working for change within the system. Sometimes what is needed to foment change is in fact the act of opting out. And, we work outside of the system in many ways as a manifestation of our striving towards the world we envision, not necessarily the world as it is; an aspiration towards becoming rather than a capitulation to the entropy of being.

Second, I have the right, the privilege, and the imperative to make a conscious choice to educate my children as I see fit and, by taking on the mantle of a parent, to make decisions that I feel are in their best interests.

Affirming and Opening Towards the Journey

When I reflect on the “things” I would like my children to learn or acquire along their journey, I alight on several core ideals. I wish for them to have the freedom to develop their passions and pursue their inquiries without the fear of censure or failure on the one hand or a quest for awards and accolades on the other. I wish for them to pursue this path according to the unfolding of their own personal timeline and the direction of their own internal compass, without the circumscription of expected “progression” towards some imposed notion of “proficiency.” I wish for them to be intrepid explorers of the heart and to find a home for it in the world. I wish for them to learn about interdependence rather than independence, to trust in their own beliefs and values, as set apart from or congruent with those of “the collective(s)”, to be what Nietzsche might call a “free spirit.” I wish for them to apprehend and learn within a holistic ecosystem that relays the interconnectedness of and distinction between sensory experience and intellectual engagement. I hope that their direct experience of the world guides their development and inspires them to seek other forms of knowledge when and where they are ready to. I wish to empower them to take chances and make choices, and to build self confidence as they do so. I also wish for them to be able to make mistakes. And to learn from them in a safe and accepting environment that regards those missteps as fundamental to the educational process, and not as a reflection on the merit of the final product. I wish for them to learn that the only thing they need to be the “best” at is being themselves and to work towards a world where others may do the same.

At its most potent and pure, education is a process of self discovery, as I have observed directly as my children grow. As I have come to see it, there is no “map” for self discovery, there is only a compass. If there is any map at all, it is one that can and should only be drawn and redrawn by the individual. This map cannot be rendered by an expert panel of curriculum writers who do not know you; it should not be superimposed by a community of educators who also do not know you (and have to contend with the maps of 15-30 other children at the same time). It can only be forged by your own hand and heart. This is the journey of the educational (ad)venture.

Exposure to different sets of beliefs, principles for living, ideas, and influences are all part of this journey, but they delineate the boundaries of our individual knowledge as they are sought out and filled in by the individual, rather than imposed from without. This is not to say that traditional schools cannot and do not offer a host of inspiring teachers and lessons. Of course they do! And, by and large, the administrators and faculty who people these institutions believe ardently in the educational mission and in the students who they serve on this mission. I have counted these dedicated teachers and administrators as my colleagues, in both the public and the private sector, in middle and high schools, and in higher educational settings. But the system in which they are enmeshed has become in many respects far greater than the sum of their noble and best efforts. And compulsory, institutionalized schooling’s ideological grip on our lives and our collective imagination has become so totalizing that the question of where your children will attend school has migrated to the forefront of parental and cultural consciousness to such an extent that preschools are now being selected and applied to with as much care as Ivy League universities (because the “right” preschool functions as a sort of conveyer belt for the “right” college and, concomitantly, the “right” life). I am overstating things for effect here, but there are more than a few grams of truth in my hyperbole. All of which is to say that our national obsession with education, the shape, size, and “innards” of it, has reached a fever pitch, and I think it is time to step back and ponder the intent and rationale that undergirds not the system of compulsory education, per se (John Taylor Gatto and John Holt have detailed this exquisitely), but the educational impulse itself. What is the purpose of education?

Contemporary Options for Progressive Institutional Schooling

Answering the question of education’s purpose comprises both a thought experiment and a life task, as dictated by the conjoined role of a mother-educator, equal parts my experience in the classroom and as a mother. I ask: Where will my children thrive? Where will my children learn and witness the values that our family cherishes and seeks to impart and that we believe forges cohesive social bonds? Where and why should they be “sent off” to do so? This “sending off/away” presents an ethical and pedagogical quandary to me: for if I enroll them in school, I will miss out on the direct experience of living and learning alongside them for most hours of the day and of the week. But for the sake of discussion, where could I “send” them that renders them not a cog in a machine that on the one hand replicates social exclusion and privilege, but is intellectually engaging, project-based and rooted in critical inquiry, i.e. the realm of the private school, and on the other, the public school, a setting that subjects them to behavioral and social obstructions? These obstructions bind teachers’ hands within a system based around one-size-fits-all learning and assessment, in other words built around the logic and dictates of standardization.

In observing our children, I have been inspired and somewhat dizzied at times by their constant motion. To say they are “active” seems repetitive and trite, as if most young children are not, by their very nature, active and enthralled by life’s wonder. Our children’s physicality and boundless curiosity needs to be both fed and expressed, and that is not wholly an intellectual endeavor. It is equal parts a process of engaging with the natural world, the built environment, and the social sphere and figuring out the symbiotic relationship between these different ways of knowing and modes of being in the world. Immersion in the natural world of necessity introduces children to ecological diversity: to variations, to processes of becoming, and to an oscillation between competition and cooperation. In our family this comprehension of and appreciation for difference stems from an impulse and serves as a gateway to parse the contours and “messiness” of social diversity as well. In the school setting, an investigation of ecological diversity is cordoned off from its intersection with social diversity (per the dictates of disciplinary boundaries), and in some instances even serves as a replacement for or elision of the complexities and paradoxes of the social realm. We strive for an integrated model that balances immersion in the natural and the social so as to see the interconnections, the linkages and the divergences, between the two environments.

I could pursue a scholarship or incur massive debt to send our children to a private Waldorf school, where at least they have many hours each day to frolic outside and be free in the younger grades. But there is something within me that bucks against such a privileged and exclusionary education, and too, that eschews the lack of ethnic and economic diversity that defines the social contours of these schools. And, like any other institutionalized schooling, Waldorf is also a standardized educational experience. I have spent the better part of my adult life learning firsthand the various omissions, deficits, and injustices of “one size fits all.” At this point, I no longer believe in many universalist truths, or rather assumptions, barring those that speak to human kindness and overarching moral, human impulses and strivings, and even these are suspect when filtered through the prism of human history. How can I presume to know how others will learn and live and love best in this world? How can anyone? But that is exactly what we do when we submit our children to a standardized education that transmits a curriculum that was built with zero feedback and relation to our individual children. This line of reasoning inevitably circles back to my own presumption that our children will thrive in a less structured, child-led learning environment. Perhaps they will not. Perhaps they will desire and in some senses need more instruction, direction, structure, and, even, standardization, from me or in an institutional setting. The irony here is that for the time being, it is unavoidable that my children are in many ways subject to my map, i.e., my values, my goals, and my routes to actualizing them. But I imagine and expect that this will become less and less so as they grow older and into themselves. Alas, this is part of a broader conundrum we confront as parents. On the one hand, when reflective and open, we might aver that we cannot reasonably know what is right for another person (indeed, this forms an essential aspect of my advocacy for individualized paths to learning through living). On the other hand, in many ways, this is precisely what we presume and assume when we bring a child into the world.

I am aware of the extent to which my children’s individual compass(es) may, in effect, take them far beyond the boundaries of any map I have drawn for them. Explorers of “the strange,” of uncharted territory, of terra incognita: in certain ways a manifestation of the human condition, but perhaps in others just an extension of our own personal oscillations between and within the process of being and becoming. I am prepared to be wrong, to make errors in judgment and direction. I am prepared to rethink my choices and realign my priorities accordingly and to work with my children in doing so. I am prepared to learn as I go. Which is, of course, exactly what I want to impart to my children.

Mental Maps and Spatial Metaphors: Concrete Applications

I often employ spatial metaphors to make sense of and concretize the rather messy, radial routes of my mental maps. These are not precise transpositions, as the gesture towards metaphor is always one which confers a sense of elision in the conversion of one thing to something else/other. This is particularly acute when the fuzziness of the mind is rendered in the more two dimensional, mathematical realm of shapes and lines. In parsing the fluidity of choice and chance, I conceptualize the grid to help elucidate my distinction between the compass and the map. The grid is comprised of two axes: the y-axis constitutes our chances; the x-axis our choices. The coordinates represent the convergences, divergences, and overlays between the two axes that “plot” a human life. The two lines can be parallel as often as they overlap, intersect, or blur. At times, they overlay one another to such an extent that they are indistinguishable.

I experienced the intersection and unification of the two axes last year when I had the chance to send my older daughter to school, but I chose not to. It was a hard decision. It made “sense” to send her; the conventional maps of parenting and education compel one to adhere to this schematic, as do concrete economic realities and financial obligations. But my compass, guided equally by intuition and reason, seemed to orient me on a different map altogether, and pointed towards routes, intersections, and destinations that seemed to have no discernible maps or legends. I paused and reflected on my experience as an educator, and I allowed those insights to contribute to this significant decision. I had often used my intuition to guide me as a teacher, scrapping whole lesson plans to spend the period outdoors reading poetry if the students (and the weather) seemed so inclined. Conjoined with my “inner ear” were my daughter’s simple but clearly articulated wishes: an expression of her desires to remain at home and live and learn alongside me and her sister. I chose to honor my compass and hers, understanding that the consequences of this decision would impose increased economic hardship and diminished opportunities for professional growth for me. I took a chance and made a choice. It was made from a place of love, and from a place of trust, in myself and in my daughter, and in the faith that we all possess the capacity to intuit many things for ourselves if given the chance and choice.

Many people acknowledge the extent to which our choices are determined and often constricted by chance: by the boundaries of race, class, nationality, gender, sexuality, genetics, and geography that define us. But I would like to posit that our chances are also determined by our choices. That x=y and y=x. As architects of our own plot lines, albeit limited in degrees that are as variable as a human life, each twist and turn we take/make closes off certain opportunities/chances and invites others. Both the chances we have and the chances we take define our life’s trajectory and axial configuration. I am trying to tread carefully and reflectively upon this complex terrain, in an effort to comprehend the chances that emerge from the informed choices I make.

Negotiating Individual Orientation and Social Location

I understand that not everyone can make the choices that I am fortunate enough to consider carefully and make on my children’s behalf. And here, the conversation (and contest at times) between our social responsibilities and civic ideals and our personal values and beliefs comes to the fore once more. I would love to see a world in which everyone could make these same choices for their children if they so desired, unencumbered by the burden of economic remuneration that dictates their days, and thus that of their children as well. But that is not, alas, the world we inhabit. I have never been the kind of person to follow along a path that I don’t believe in, or that does not fit my aspirations and ideals, when I had the chance and/or the choice to do so. It is no different with parenting, and with the responsibility I bear to my children. I step forward in conjoined rejection and affirmation, no one more than the other. Though it may appear to be more inclined toward a “saying no,” it is also a “saying yes,” to those things that I believe in and that inspire me most deeply, and to the experiences that have formed me and that will guide our children as they traverse their own paths.

This essay, and the stance I elucidate therein, is a reflection of the provisional set of truths that I have alighted on after 40 years. From the introductory courses on dialectical theory and the Black radical imagination that I took as a freshman in college and expanded upon in my graduate studies, to the ten years I spent teaching at the high school and college level, I have now spent over half of my life ensconced in and inspired by the world of secondary and higher education and in thinking about the evolution of and societal value of my pedagogy. These truths are provisional because, like all truths, they are mutable, subject to the ravages and revisions of time and redirection. As we morph and grow, so too do our truths. And here again, is another thing I wish for my children: to have the “luxury” of time and the diversity of experiences to create and reflect upon their own truths as they evolve organically alongside their experiences.

I have engaged in a host of formal and informal educational experiences: at times these have dovetailed with one another, at times they have sent me on divergent paths and pursuits. But there is no doubt that for me, each aspect has lent richness, complexity, and perspective to the other. And so, I assess the personal and social value of my own education and the detours and alleys of my educational trajectory, its “purpose.” I alight on the fact that I have been exposed to and active within so many different educational environments, each one with a distinct approach to pedagogy, proficiency, and achievement. Each one pushing me to explore and interrogate the range of those responses to the educational imperative in relation to my internal compass.  That compass has directed me across many different maps, to the centers and to the margins, to the spaces in between, and ultimately to the places that reside “beyond the territory.” This compass has helped me to attend to the vicissitudes and contours of my interior. It has attuned me to places within myself that I could not have found and accessed using anyone else’s map. And so I continue to use it well and wisely as I forge ahead as a mother/educator.

Maps, grids, axes: these are all attempts to grasp and unify that which is ultimately diffuse and elusive, all a mental exercise in making sense of an infinitely complex and wild world. I do not know how often my children’s axes of choice and chance will diverge, collide, or coalesce. I cannot know what kinds of choices they will make or what kinds of chances they will take. I appreciate that one day my children might use their compass to illumine a very different path than the one I am charting loosely for them, and that this path will likely be one that I have not and cannot yet envision. As in life itself, a lot of parenting lies in the not-knowing, and, in somehow finding comfort and fluidity within the residence of this uncertainty. And here again lies the premise and promise of an education: an apprehension of the abundant wonder that configures our world and a sense of place and peace amidst it.


Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Elizabeth Lenaghan and Jessica Knott.

[Photo, “unbelievable” by Funkyah, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

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